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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Blair Walsh, the blame game and the road back from a painful miss

By Matthew Coller

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Blair Walsh needs to start blaming something or someone other than himself.

It runs counter intuitive to everything we’ve ever been told about how to handle failure in sports, but when I asked former NFL punter and current kicking and punting instructor Filip Filipovic how the Minnesota Vikings’ kicker could get over missing a potential game-winning chip shot in the playoffs last year, that’s exactly what he said Walsh should do.

“The easiest way to do it, and probably not publicly, is to convince yourself that it wasn’t your fault,” said Filipovic, who hosts kicking camps all over the Midwest including in Minnesota and runs the website TheKickingCoach.com.

The clouds of Walsh’s wide-left shank have hovered over him each time he has trotted onto the field since the playoff miss and last week it finally cost the Vikings a win. Walsh missed an extra point and had a field goal blocked in Minnesota’s 22-16 loss to the Detroit Lions.

Following the game, he didn’t convince anyone he was over the Seattle kick.

“You guys have got to understand, what do you want the answer to be?” Walsh said. “I want to be there for my team. Of course I want to make it. But come on. You guys ask the same questions every week — ‘Did you make it? Why didn’t it go in?’ I mean, if I had the answer right away, I’d tell you.”

The Vikings responded by trying out six kickers.

Walsh’s struggles haven’t just been a regular season phenomenon. In his second preseason game of 2016, he went 0-for-3, missing from 35, 38 and 49 yards. The third preseason matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, who advanced in the playoffs because of Walsh’s miscue, featured a make from 27, but a miss wide left from 47 in the fourth quarter.

He shrugged off the preseason misses in media sessions, then opened the year against Tennessee with three more no-goods.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has given his kicker the same amount of support that the Maury Povich, “you are not the father,” dads tend to provide. In his Monday press conference after the loss to the Lions, Zimmer was asked why the team was bringing in other legs for a workout.

“You’ve been watching all year, haven’t ya?” he responded.

Zimmer was shown on TV using some choice words for his kicker after a miss against the New York Giants. The clip made its way around Twitter and Facebook at the speed of sound.

Walsh has said over and over that he will be fine. He’s said he’s working on his mechanics. But it seems unlikely that mechanics are to blame when the former sixth-round pick had made 85% of his career kicks before this season, including an outstanding 23-for-32 from longer than 50 yards.Walsh has also said the media should stop bringing up his error in the playoffs.

Maybe he needs to start saying, “it wasn’t my fault.”

“People can convince themselves of all kinds of lies,” Filipovic said. “If you justify it to yourself by making up different ways, like if the hold wasn’t great or it was cold, still he made most of the kicks that year and it was an amazing year, you can convince yourself it wasn’t your fault and that keeps the confidence in check instead of having it chipped away. A lot of athletes do that, whether they say it publicly or not. They just kind of brush it off as a fluke or that somebody did something they weren’t supposed to.”

Filip Filopovic played for the Dallas Cowboys and was in camp with the Vikings in the early 2000s. Click to visit his website TheKickingCoach.com

Blaming others is the taboo of all taboos in the militaristic NFL. But we usually forget about those who have done it and gone on to be successful. When Peyton Manning ripped into his offensive line in 2006, he was called a “jerk.” He stopped calling teammates out publicly, but you can bet he didn’t stop behind the scenes. Former Packers receiver Greg Jennings ripped quarterback Aaron Rodgers for never being at fault.

“A lot of times when you have a guy who creates that spotlight for himself and establishes that and takes a lot of that, it becomes so-and-so and the team,” Jennings said in 2013. “It should always be the team … Don’t get me wrong, ‘12′ is a great person. But when you hear all positives, all positives, all positives all the time, it’s hard for you to sit down when one of your teammates says ‘Man, come on, you’ve got to hold yourself accountable for this.’”

But if a quarterback places the blame on his own shoulders for every mistake, he’ll be carrying the weight of hundreds of plays per season that didn’t go his way. Imagine if a quarterback studied his mechanics on every throw looking for the tiniest detail that may have been off a tick. It would be impossible to do the job. In fact, maybe that’s why some very talented quarterbacks over the years couldn’t do it.

Vikings punter Jeff Locke, who went through a rough stretch himself in 2015, said that doing too much digging into kicking struggles can cause a kicker to start seeing ghosts.

“It’s kind of like when you watch a golf swing too much, you start seeing things that aren’t actually there,” Locke said. “When I watch my punting sometimes and I’m not punting well, I’ll start seeing things. You have to bring it back down to the basics of what got me here and just swing.”

Walsh may feel like he’s lacking allies in the organization, but he’s hardly alone in his situation.

Arguably the most heartbreaking play in Vikings franchise history is Gary Anderson’s 38-yard miss that would have sent Minnesota to the Super Bowl. He famously hadn’t missed a kick during the entire 1998 regular season. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff had a 31-yard game-winner on his hands in the AFC Championship game in 2012 but hooked it. Poor San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding missed twice in the 2010 divisional game against the Jets after going 32-for-35 during the year. And lest us not forget the most memorable play in Super Bowl history, Scott Norwood’s wide right kick that would have won the Bills their first championship.

There are lots more. Some went on to have success, but many faltered in the following season. Anderson made just 63.3% of his kicks in 1999. Kaeding was out of the league two years later. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt was memorably called “our idiot kicker” by Peyton Manning at the Pro Bowl – he never recovered after a miss in ’06 that cost the Colts a playoff game against the Steelers. Vanderjagt was let go by Indy, then hit just 72.2% of his kicks for Dallas the following season then retired. Norwood made 61.1% after “Wide Right” and never played again.

Why did these kickers fall apart when quarterbacks who threw key interceptions or fumbled an important snap, *cough, Tony Romo,* seem to move along with their careers but kickers don’t? Part of the reason, Filipovic said, is that, unlike quarterbacks, there are so many other capable kickers that teams simply don’t have to be loyal or have the kicker’s back. You can’t easily replace Brett Favre or Tom Brady because you’re angry that he missed an important throw, but you can find six other kickers with experience to try out in an eye-blink.

“They will only work with a kicker for so long before they look in the direction of ‘who’s going to get us the most wins?’” Filipovic said. “They will give you a little bit of time depending on your track record, and I think Blair Walsh’s leash is quite long because he’s done great things in the past…it’s lonely when you’re a kicker and you struggle because you can feel the pressure right away.”

As former Browns and Giants kicker Matt Bahr once said: “If you have a rough day, sick with it, if you have two rough days, you’re fired.”

So now Walsh feels like his job is on the line with every kick. Well, at least he has fan support…oh wait.

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Walsh has a Twitter account. I’d rather be chased by Racer Snakes than read his mentions after a missed kick. While school children were nice enough to send Walsh encouraging letters after the Seattle faux pas, the internet if filled with people who are not as nice. We would all like to say sticks and stones, but F-yous and death threats are hard to ignore.

You can imagine there were a few players mumbling F-yous too, but teammates always claim to have their kicker’s back. Locke said Vikings teammates were behind him during his struggles. But when 52 players feel like they played well enough to win and one 5-foot-7, 160-pound dude doesn’t do his job, you can bet the kicker would have a tough time getting a teammate to drop him off at the airport – unless it was for a one-way ticket out of town.

Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a field goal in their game in London against the Cincinnati Bengals that not only cost them a win but has a possibility of being the deciding factor in whether they land a playoff spot or win a division title. Quarterback Kirk Cousins told Vikings media via conference call that team leaders must emphasize that they cannot blame one player, even if it’s the kicker.

“Just about every player on every team can go through a game and point out a play where they feel like they cost their team a win,” Cousins said. “Nobody is going to play perfect and kicker is no different. So you give a guy grace and understand that in every game we’ve lost, I walk off and point out not just one play but two, three or four plays that if I had made, we would have won. My response was, ‘welcome to the NFL, we all deal with it and we all support each other.’”

One area of support in earnest within the team is from the other guy who kicks for a living.

“I can look back at a couple three games in a row where I just wasn’t punting great and Blair was helping me watch film and on the sideline he would be telling me what he saw,” Locke said. “Luckily we have both punted and kicked before, so we kind of see it in each other what’s going on, so that helps.”

The missing part of most kicker conversations is about math.

Multiple statistical analysts have tried to build models that would predict kicker performance and they all have found it to be an impossible task. But there’s something that Mike Zimmer said that relates to Walsh’s value on the team.

“We’ve missed three extra points this year, we’ve missed several field goals, the way our games are being played, they’re probably going to come down to a lot of close games, I hope so at least anyway,” Zimmer said. “We have to look at all avenues as far as what gives us the best opportunity to win football games.”

The Vikings offense ranking 31st in yards will result in Walsh having fewer kicks, but probably aren’t much different in terms of value. The league’s highest scoring team the Atlanta Falcons have scored 29% of their points via the kicker while Minnesota has 31% by Walsh. If he had made the three extra points and another field goal, it would be 35%.

There’s also the win probability of his miss against Detroit. Pro Football Reference estimates that the Vikings’ chances to win the game when Matt Stafford got the ball with 0:23 remaining were higher than 90%. So it can be hard to pin that loss on the kicker. It is fair if the Walsh rage all comes back to the Seattle kick, even from the team.

But the Vikings aren’t looking back and trying to figure out who is responsible for losing to Detroit or in the playoffs against Seattle, they are trying to decide whether Walsh will make nine of 10 or seven of 10 going forward.

It’s absolutely impossible to know.

“If you ever come up with the solution to kickers in the National Football League,” former head coach of the Browns Sam Rutigliano said in September 1984, “you’ll be resurrected. You may be the Second Coming.”

Filipovic notes that the Vikings bringing in kickers to work out makes it quite clear that the next step is finding a replacement. Any misses against Washington will be his last as a Viking. As if there wasn’t enough pressure already.

Maybe the only way for Walsh to block out what he’s up against this week is to blame his defense for not stopping the Lions, his holder, his snapper, Twitter, the turf manufacturer…whoever it takes to forget about the circumstances – to move on from the Seattle miss – and get back to being one of the NFL’s best kickers.

The post Blair Walsh, the blame game and the road back from a painful miss appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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